How She Does It: Jessica Lahey


It’s an honor to feature Jessica Lahey in this How She Does It profile.  Even though we’ve never met in person, I feel like I know Jessica.  I was thrilled that she joined the lineup of writers in This is Adolescence, and I read her writing – in the Atlantic, on her blog, in the New York Times – regularly.

And her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, is an absolute marvel of honesty and rigor and gentle reminders that truly one of parenting’s central tasks is just getting out of the way.  I read it and loved it and am looking forward to reviewing it in a couple of weeks for Great New Books.

In short, reading the The Gift of Failure felt like staring in a mirror.  The book’s central tenet is one I share without hesitation intellectually, but it is also one I fall short of meeting in myriad ways on a regular basis.  Jessica’s persuasive writing helped me see what stands in the way of my being the parent I want to be.  Since reading it I’ve given Grace full responsibility for making family dinner one night (she did great, and told me afterwards that she felt proud of herself), stopped re-folding clothes in Whit’s closet that aren’t as neat as I’d like, and given both children more daily jobs around the house.  I also watched Grace make a mistake with her job (she walks a local dog twice a week) and work her way out of it, including direct communication with the adult on the other end.  I stayed out of it, even though I could easily have helped.  It was a learning experience all around, though there were certainly some tears.

I’ve been telling everyone I talk to about The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.  I recommend it immensely highly and am delighted that Jessica agreed to be profiled today in How She Does It.


Tell me about the first hour of your day?  (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)

Don’t hate me, but I spend the first 20-30 minutes of the day in bed, awake, eyes closed, allowing my mind to wander. It’s that untethered, stream-of-consciousness thinking that helps me come up with ideas, plan my day, decide what to write that day, and get ready to work. I used to get up with my kids when they went off to school, but when I suffered a bad concussion in 2013, I found I needed a lot more sleep, and that has persisted. My kids responded by getting more responsible and self-sufficient in the mornings, and my husband helps them out if they need it.

Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed?  What is it?

Jeans, my purple Glerup slippers, and a comfy t-shirt/sweater. The clothes may vary, but the Glerups are a constant. I love them.

How do you and your spouse reserve conflicts about scheduling?

We use a shared calendar so I can see his call schedule (he’s an Infectious Diseases physician) and he can see my schedule and the boys’ schedules. I run every speaking date by him before committing, and try not to schedule them when he’s on call.

Do you second-guess yourself?  What do you do when that happens?

Every time I’ve second-guessed my gut feelings about what I should do, I am wrong. I’ve learned to trust that immediate gut reaction. If I’m really not sure about something, I talk to my husband. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s often right about what I should do.

What time do you go to bed?

9 or 10.

Do you exercise?  If so, when?

I walk, I horseback ride. I hike in the woods. I take bike rides. In the winter, I skate ski (cross-country skiing that’s fast) at least three days a week near my house. I used to run a lot but it’s not fun anymore, so I just don’t do it. I usually get out in the late afternoon, while my kids do their homework, because I work until they get home.

Do you cook dinner for your kids?  Do you have go-to dishes you can recommend?

Almost every day. Go-to dishes are “salmon and noodles” (salmon, broccoli, soba noodles, and teriyaki sauce), roasted veggies and a chicken from our CSA farmer, sushi rice and some kind of raw fish, shrimp, whatever is fresh at the store. We also have what we call “scavenging nights” where everyone fends for themselves.

Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?

They have always liked that I’ve kept teaching hours because I’m home when they are. I don’t think they really get what I do as a writer, because they don’t see me do much other than read books and sit at my computer and do some social media and talk on the phone. I think they think it’s cool that I’m in the newspaper or on television, but they’d never admit it.

What is the single piece of advice you would give another working mother?

When you stop working to spend time with your family. Stop. Shut it down and pay attention to your family. That’s hard for me, but I’m working on it. My agent does not respond to emails on the weekend, and I totally respect that about her.

And, inspired by Vanity Fair, a few quick glimpses into your life:

Favorite Artist?

My father. He does architectural watercolors.

Favorite jeans?

The ones I get at the thrift store for $2.50 to garden in.

Shampoo you use?

Whatever my hairstylist sister tells me to buy or gives me as a present.

Favorite book?

84 Charring Cross Road

Favorite quote?

“I decided to make my life my argument.” – Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Favorite musician?

My guitar-playing teenager.

Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children?

Stinky, a stuffed version of Rotta the Huttlet from Star Wars. My younger son cried with joy when he received it as a birthday gift after a treasure hunt orchestrated by his big brother.


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  1. Richard Kennedy
    Posted September 16, 2015 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    So good, so human. Words to think and live by from two of my favorite muses.

  2. Posted September 16, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    What a delight to read after having seen and heard Jessica in Manchester. I can count on one hand how many authors I’ve read and spoken to in person. Jessica so vibrantly brings to life everything that she shares in the book. I cannot recommend it to people fast enough, or cite it often enough when talking with Sean about out girls.

    I love that you created this post and that I have the privilege of benefitting from the wisdom and wit of both of you.

  3. Posted September 16, 2015 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Love that you interviewed one of my faves. And I think I need to look into these Glerup slippers!

  4. Posted September 17, 2015 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Love this series.

  5. Posted September 17, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    This is…timely. But, then, I suppose there would never be a bad time for this. It’s excellent. Thank you for sharing. So many will benefit from this. I have never read The Gift of Failure but plan to now.

  6. Posted September 18, 2015 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Great idea for a series. I was introduced to Jessica Lahey through The Good Life Project and subsequently told everyone I knew about her and her book. Thank you for featuring her.